Face up to civilian casualties in Gaza

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The long-awaited United Nations report on the conflict in Gaza is strongly critical of both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups. Both sides are said to have committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. The report recommends that Israel start its own investigation into the conflict within three months.

If Israel refuses to comply with this recommendation, the investigators have urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court prosecutor within six months. Israel doesn’t accept the court’s authority, calling the council “a body constantly critical of Israel.”

The report also said, though, that the firing of rockets and mortars by armed groups from Gaza at Israeli citizens amounted to serious war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.

Israeli human rights groups issued a statement calling on “the Government of Israel to respond to the substance of the report’s findings and to desist from its current policy of casting doubt upon the credibility of anyone who doesn’t adhere to the establishment’s narrative.”

The U.N. report follows an investigation of the Gaza war by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. More than half of the Palestinians killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza were civilians, states B’Tselem.

B’Tselem’s assertions, based on exhaustive investigations, should prompt a serious investigation by Israel’s judiciary and, if the denunciations are confirmed, the punishment of those guilty. Israel’s judiciary cannot afford to appear complicit in gross human rights violations carried out by the Israeli armed forces.

Although the IDF has acknowledged “rare mishaps” in the conduct of the war in Gaza, it has steadfastly denied violating international humanitarian law. B’Tselem’s investigation does not support the IDF’s allegations, and presents a serious accusation against the IDF about its actions in Gaza.

According to the IDF, the Gaza Cast Lead operation death toll is 1,166, including 709 combatants and 295 civilians. It has refused to release a list of names or any other evidence. B’Tselem’s findings — based on several months of research and visits to the families of victims — claim that 1,387 Gazans were killed. That figure includes 773 civilians and 330 combatants.

The IDF claims that B’Tselem’s figures are based on flawed research and on reliance on figures reported by Palestinian human rights groups. The Israeli human rights group’s figures are similar to those reported by Hamas, which claims that more than 1,350 Gaza residents were killed during the operation, most of them civilians. B’Tselem also claims that the IDF withheld information that would have allowed cross-checking of information.

“Behind the statistics lie shocking stories: entire families killed, parents seeing children shot before their eyes, relatives watching loved ones bleed to death, and entire neighborhoods obliterated,” states B’Tselem.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, however, has denounced the “extensive rumors that have considerably damaged the IDF’s image both at home and abroad.”

“The failure of the IDF and Israeli government to investigate serious allegations of wrongdoing by its soldiers precedes Operation Cast Lead,” states Human Rights Watch. Since 2000 this organization has documented the persistent lack of fair investigations into civilian deaths following the use of lethal force in law enforcement situations as well as in combat situations in the West Bank and Gaza, despite credible allegations that soldiers deliberately harmed civilians. Israel’s conduct clashes with its obligations under international law.

Following Operation Cast Lead, B’Tselem sent Israel’s attorney general and the military’s judge advocate general 20 cases that suggest breach of law. Among those cases is the killing of some 90 Palestinians (half of them minors) — who B’Tselem believes didn’t take part in the conflict — and Israeli soldiers’ use of civilians as human shields. According to B’Tselem, it has received only one serious response: The Judge Advocate General’s Office stated that it had ordered a Military Police investigation into the use of civilians as human shields.

“The extremely heavy civilian casualties and the massive damage to civilian property require serious introspection on the part of Israeli society,” states B’Tselem.

Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, recently wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that “Israel’s victories are pyrrhic and reveal the limits of Israeli power and our own limitations as a people: Our inability to live a life without barriers. Are these the boundaries of our rebirth after the Holocaust?”

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.